Michael Stravato, Shelby Tauber / Texas Tribune
Donald Trump carried Texas on Tuesday en route to a shocking upset in the presidential race, though he earned the smallest margin of victory — nine points — for a Republican nominee in the solidly red state in two decades.
The New York billionaire was projected to win Texas’ 38 electoral votes with 52 percent of the vote to Democratic rival Hillary Clinton’s 43 percent, according to incomplete returns. It was the state’s closest race for the White House since 1996, when GOP nominee Bob Dole won by 5 points.
Trump’s historically narrow Texas win, however, was overshadowed by the political earthquake that was his overall victory. He headed into the night considered the underdog and emerged triumphant, sweeping many battleground states viewed as tossups or favorable to Clinton, the former secretary of state.
Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who chaired Trump’s efforts in Texas, said the Lone Star State “will now have a good friend in the White House.”
“It is a new day in America,” Patrick said in a statement. “Change is finally coming to Washington. The voices of voters who have been ignored by the Washington establishment, the Democrat establishment and the media establishment, finally were heard loud and clear.”
Texas Democrats did not immediately comment on the outcome, saying they were waiting for their nominee to publicly comment. That did not happen in the early morning hours, but at his election night party, Trump told supporters Clinton had called him to concede.
The presidential race had excited the state’s long-beleaguered Democrats, whose party has not carried Texas since Jimmy Carter did in 1976. Few anticipated Clinton would win Texas on Tuesday, but they had hoped for a margin close enough to help down-ballot candidates and lay the foundation for future Democratic gains across the state.
For most of the election cycle, polls had shown Trump leading Clinton by single digits in Texas — by as little as 3 in some surveys. The previous two GOP nominees, Mitt Romney and John McCain, won the state by 16 and 12 points, respectively.
Despite Trump’s underperformance, Texas Republicans insisted Tuesday the state remains redder than ever while deriding Democratic efforts to make it more competitive over the years.
“We are very, very strong Republican state, and I think it’s been proven yet again,” Texas GOP Chairman Tom Mechler told reporters as results were coming in. “Hillary Clinton was never going to win Texas. We knew that. They knew that, and yet they kept pitching that and hoping people would believe that.”
In an interview early Wednesday morning, Patrick said one reason for Trump’s closer-than-usual margin may have been low turnout by moderate Republicans who backed McCain and Romney but did not show up for the more conservative Trump. “Had they turned out, he would’ve been in the low teens,” Patrick said, nonetheless expressing confidence Texas was still a bright red state.
As Tuesday stretched into Wednesday, however, Texas Democrats appeared more occupied with the national picture for their party. As Trump leapfrogged Clinton, the mood in a downtown Dallas hotel ballroom was despondent, the crowd thinning and growing quiet. People shouted in frustration as Iowa was called for Trump and he pulled ahead in Pennsylvania.
“The projections are saying she’d be winning, and I have to say I’m a little bit disappointed right now,” said Jordan Acosta as she watched Trump pick up steam against Clinton.
Yet Acosta was not totally giving up yet.
“A lot of people are really fearful, and I really refuse to give into that fear,” Acosta said. “That’s the premise Trump’s campaign was based on.”
While the Clinton campaign did not make an all-out play for Texas, it did open some offices and send some surrogates — including vice presidential nominee Tim Kaine — for public events, uncommon moves for any presidential campaign during a general election in Texas. In October, the campaign launched a small, one-week TV ad buy across the state that highlighted Clinton’s endorsement by The Dallas Morning News editorial board, which had not backed a Democratic nominee since before World War II.
Trump also paid an uncommon level of attention to Texas, tacking on some rallies when he swung through the state for fundraising — a traditional activity for presidential candidates in Texas. Trump’s public events in the state, however, appeared more geared toward soaking up the free media attention he received wherever he went than protecting his standing in a safely Republican state.
Texas politics was nonetheless never too far removed from the presidential race. U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, was the first candidate to enter the Republican primary, and he fought Trump until the bitter end. After pointedly declining to endorse Trump at the GOP national convention in July, Cruz finally came around two months later.
Congratulating Trump early Wednesday morning, Cruz reminded the billionaire of a promise that was key to Cruz’s endorsement: that Trump would pick U.S. Supreme Court justices exclusively from a list of 21 jurists he had released. Cruz was otherwise laudatory, acknowledging the remarkable nature of the Trump victory.
“This election astonished the pundits,” Cruz said. “This was a change election. Americans voted for Republicans because of a promise to go to Washington to reverse our current course, and end the Washington cartel — a promise to drain the swamp.”
Heading into Tuesday, Texas Republicans were largely unified behind their nominee, though levels of enthusiasm varied widely. After the primary, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, a former Cruz supporter, emerged as one of Trump’s most vocal backers among Texas GOP officials, and Trump ultimately tapped Patrick to chair the campaign’s efforts in the Lone Star State. In the home stretch, Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller became Trump’s most visible surrogate from Texas.
Still, Trump never earned the support of some prominent members of the Texas GOP, especially after the October release of a 2005 clip showing the nominee speaking lewdly about women. Among elected officials, the anti-Trump crowd most prominently included endangered U.S. Rep. Will Hurd, who had never endorsed Trump and asked him to step aside after the recording came out.
Clinton, meanwhile, benefited from deep support among Texas Democrats from start to finish. Even during her unexpectedly competitive primary against U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, Clinton had the backing of virtually every notable Texas Democrat, with only one state lawmaker backing Sanders.
Trump’s weaknesses among Texans were on display as voters cast their ballots Tuesday in Democratic-leaning San Antonio, also the site of a heated rematch between U.S. Rep. Will Hurd, R-San Antonio, and Alpine Democrat Pete Gallego.
“I’m voting for Hillary because I’d like to have a first lady be a president,” said Lorraine Ramos, 58. “I don’t like Trump because of how he talks about immigrants. I think they deserve to be in any country and I don’t think he’s being fair.”
“With this election, what’s most important is to have a president that shows and demonstrates how a president should act — not degrade women, talk like he talks about Hispanics or disrespect other people,” added Jose Lopez, a 33-year-old truck driver.
Yet there were some Trump supporters in the mix among voters at South San Antonio High School and McCollum High School. Daniel Arevalo, a 54-year-old salesman, said he cast his ballot for Trump, drawn to the real estate mogul’s business acumen.
“The most important issue in this election is the economy and jobs, that’s why I voted for Trump,” Arevalo said. “I think he will bring more jobs. I think Clinton is in it for herself to make money.”
Brandon Formby and Elena Mejia Lutz contributed to this report.
This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune, a nonpartisan, nonprofit media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them – about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.